Time with Parents is Key for Adolescents, Study Suggests

Mother and teen on couch.

The more time mothers spend participating in activities with their adolescent children, the less likely these kids engage in delinquent behavior, such as skipping school or shoplifting, according to a study published in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family External Web Site Policy.

The findings also suggest that adolescent children who participate in activities with both parents have fewer behavioral problems, higher math scores, and less substance use. Interestingly, the researchers found no similar relationship between the amount of parental time and the emotional, behavioral, and academic problems of younger children.


A mother’s time is thought to be essential for the well-being of a child. This belief is pervasive in U.S. culture and central to debates on whether a mother should stay at home or return to work when children are young. However, little research exists to support the link between a mother’s time and a child’s optimal development.

To better understand how parental time affects adolescents and younger children, study authors Melissa Milkie from the University of Toronto, Kei Nomaguchi from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and Kathleen Denny from the University of Maryland looked at time-diary data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Child Development Supplement, a nationally representative sample of U.S. families with children. These data, collected in studies funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, provide information on how children (ages 3 to 11) and adolescents (ages 12 to 18) spend their time, what activities they do, with whom they do the activities, where the activities take place, and who else is present.

The researchers used these data to examine children’s and adolescents’ time with mothers (when fathers were not present), and also “parent time”—when offspring were together with mothers and fathers. They looked at the type of time: either engaged in activities together or when mothers were accessible, but not doing the same activity as their child. They did not, however, examine the quality of time parents spend with their children. For example, researchers did not distinguish between mother-child time together eating meals (an activity considered high-quality) and time spent together watching television.

Results of Study

The researchers found that in childhood and adolescence, the overall amount of maternal time did not seem to matter for offspring behaviors, emotions, or academics, but social factors such as family structure (e.g., single parent or married couple) and mothers’ education level were important. Adolescents who experienced more engaged maternal time had fewer delinquent behaviors. Additionally, teenagers who spent more time engaged with both parents had better outcomes, including better behavior and higher math scores.

Unexpectedly, the amount of mothers’ time in activities with offspring (especially together with fathers) mattered more to the well-being of adolescents than it did for younger children. “It is ironic that most of the cultural pressures on mothers center on mothers’ presence and interactions with younger children, with less attention to adolescents, when adolescence may be a key stage in terms of the influence of time with parents,” wrote the study authors.


The study results suggest that the amount of time parents spend with adolescents is important to the teenagers’ emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes. This relationship is less clear in children ages 3 to 11.

Consistent with prior research, the study found that social and economic resources, such as mothers’ education, family structure, and mothers’ distress levels, are important contributors to the well-being of children and adolescents. The researchers suggest that supporting mothers in ways that improve their resources and maintain their health is important for U.S. children and adolescents.

Next Steps

The researchers plan to examine how particular activities such as screen time may have different links to the well-being of children or adolescents based on with whom they are doing these activities.


Melissa A. Milkie, Kei M. Nomaguchi, and Kathleen E. Denny, “Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend With Children or Adolescents Matter?” Journal of Marriage & Family 77 (April 2015): 355-72. DOI:10.1111/jomf.12170

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